New Survey: The Social Construct of Race and Ethnicity -
One's Self-identity after a DNA Test
There is a new survey available asking for your perception of your “Ethnic Percentages” after taking an autosomal DNA test. It focuses on the chart or map that shows your percentages of various populations. This is the first of its kind and is run by Western Michigan University at Kalamazoo. Such surveys may be the start of gathering data on testers’ perceptions of DNA testing. I greatly welcome more in other aspects of DNA testing.
The autosomal test is offered by the five major DNA companies: Family Tree DNA, 23andMe, AncestryDNA, MyHeritage and Living DNA. (At Family Tree DNA, the test is called Family Finder.) Each of these companies has some sort of map and/or pie chart listing the various population groups related to your DNA results. This is often called “Ethnicity Percentages” by the lay person. However, many testers view this information as belonging to a race or ethnic group.
I urge all of you who have tested to take this first-ever survey on the topic so there is a better understanding of the public’s insight of their DNA results in the area of “Ethnicity Percentages”. The questionnaire is a group of simple questions asking how you felt before and after taking the test. You are anonymous.
But first, some background as often these terms are confused and neither of them correctly apply to what you receive as a comparison in your autosomal testing. Sadly, the word “race” and “ethnicity” are incorrectly used by most of the testers and the companies misuse the term “ethnicity”. Perhaps, a better view of this can help those with questions/concerns and the actual value of this portion of your test.
Race is considered a group of people of a common ancestry, often distinguished from others by physical characteristics such as skin, hair type, bone structure, stature, etc. But what if a person has a black parent and a white parent. What race are they then? What if a person has three white grandparents and one black one? They are more white than black, but society doesn’t view it as biological as it is. Another reason to consider the biological view of race is that people are all 99.9 percent alike in their DNA, making persons with different racial backgrounds more alike than different. The old 1800 adage of a drop of “black blood” makes you black, continues today, but only in the United States. Given this, race is often the result of a person’s social beliefs and biases.
Race places a large role in countries that exercise genocide. For example, the Rwandan genocide was based on the width of noses.1,2
Geneticists tell us that the human population began in sub-Saharan Africa where more melanin produced darker skin so there is protection against the sun, etc. As people migrated away from the equator, they evolved in order to adapt to the climate; therefore, less melanin was produced so skin was lighter. Obviously, it took thousands of years and selective breeding for the genes to alter.
Ethnicity is defined as not a physical construct but shared social, cultural and historical experiences. An ethnic group shares common beliefs, values, and behaviors. Ethnicity can then include people who may have different physical appearances, but who share common believes and cultural or national experiences, including religious or linguistic traits.
Ask yourself: What makes my ancestor Irish or French or any other group of people? If a person lives in a country for “x” number of years does that make them a particular ethnic group? Then ask yourself does the British descendants living in South Africa make them African when we tend to think an African has dark skin?
Understand that DNA, even your DNA, existed before political boundaries were drawn and that people traveled much more than we may expect. For example, the Tarim Basic mummies which were dated from 1800 BCE to the first centuries BCE were found on the Silk Road in China in the 1900s. DNA testing showed those mummies continually inhabited the Tarim Basin from 2000 BCE to 300 BCE and came from Europe, Mesopotamia, Indus Valley and other populations with several haplogroups.3,4
As millions of people have taken a DNA test to determine their “Ethnicity Percentages”, which is really termed bio-geographical comparisons or regional percentages, some people are shocked by the result; some are not. Some do not have ancestors from a particular population group, so they feel the results is in error. Know that we all have missing lines in our pedigree chart and some of these comparisons to population in certain regions do go back way beyond what we can find in man-made records. For example, my mother’s all-female line from a branch of Scandinavians, but I have no one in my pedigree chart who is from there as I am stuck in 1788 in Kentucky. I may never find someone from that area. It could be many hundreds of years ago.
The old adage you can’t judge a book by its cover appears to apply to people as well.
The Changes in your “Ethnic Percentages”
What many testers do not realize is that each DNA genealogical testing company selects their own group of populations or a particular region with whom to compare you. Over time those groups will change as more is learned about our DNA make-up and information is refined. The percentages within a group may also change. It is important to note that this part of your DNA test is not as scientific as calculating your shared segments on each chromosome.
This bio-geographical or regional comparison (often called “Ethnic Percentages”) can be very beneficial to those who have family stories of being Asian, African, Native American, Jewish, etc. if they test several family members as every child inherits differently and some in a family may have received enough of the sequence for that population or region than others. It also helps adoptees or those with recent dead-ends on their pedigree chart understand their heritage.
The web link for entering this survey, "The Social Construct of Race and Ethnicity: One's Self-identity after a DNA Test," which is being conducted in association with Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan, is here: Your Self-Identity After a DNA Test Survey.
The University HSIRB letter is on the first page of the survey as required, and the questions begin on the second page.
I urge all of you to complete the survey so the geneticists and genetic genealogist can have a better understanding of your view. I also urge you to write to your testing company and ask them to remove the word “ethnicity” and call the comparison what it really is…bio-geographical or, even better, regional comparisons!
Best to all of you,
1. ‘An Ordinary Man’ Navigates Rwanda’s Genocide
2. Remember Rwanda? How Big Is Your Nose? The Intervention in Libya! https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2011/3/30/958631/-
3. DNA Reveals These Red-Haired Chinese Mummies Come From Europe And Asia
4. Tarim mummies